It was a lovely day for a walk. The air was not too hot, nor too cold, and a steady breeze ruffled the leaves of the canopy to make a wonderful sound. Birds chirped high from the branches and squirrels ran from the forest floor to the canopy in endless races. Zanzen enjoyed walking through the forest on perfect days as this. He often had the luxury for such strolls. Zanzen's father was one of the Elders, the ruling class of the Scissortail clan, as was his grandfather, and his grandfather's father and grandfather before him. Very likely, Zanzen would marry a daughter of another Elder and their future children would also be Elders. A cycle as unbreaking as the running of the sprinting squirrels.
Zanzen stopped under an old elm and sat down on the roots. He sighed happily and leaned back against the tree. Politics were terribly boring, but being of a privileged class had its advantages, such as today's leisure. He watched the creatures of the forest go about their daily lives. Some ignored him. Some feared him, as they rightfully should. While he was not on the prowl, he was still a predator and something to avoid.
Yet another was. Zanzen noticed a young female stalking a buck. She wore a simple leather tunic and her skin was painted in dark, blotchy paint.
How cute. One of the peasants doing their hunting, Zanzen laughed. Another of the advantages of being highborn was not having to do his own hunting. The Elders guided the clan, settled disputes, and maintained diplomatic relations with other clans to lessen the chance of war. In return, the lower classes kept them fed and provided with the materials they needed to survive.
Carefully, slowly, the female crept closer to the buck just on the other side of a hedge.
This should be funny. Surely she will rustle the leaves and scare it away. Zanzen kept perfectly still. Should it be frightened, he would have no part in it.
The female lowered herself to the ground, growing ever closer to the unobservant buck.
Time for the deer to bound away! Zanzen held his breath, tensed, and waited for his amusement. But to his surprise, the female coiled, and sprang. With an agile swipe, she slashed the throat of the buck with her claws. The buck barely had a chance to gurgle a surprise before he collapsed.
Zanzen's jaw dropped in surprise. "Wha... What just happened?" Were the odds not stacked against her?
The female snapped her head to his direction. "Who's there?"
"Oh, ah, Zanzen!" he called back.
"I'll be on my way, master Zanzen," the female quickly averted her gaze and gathered her buck over her shoulders. "Sorry to disturb you."
"No, please," Zanzen sprang to his feet and strode lightly to her. "I'll carry it back for you."
"But this is meant for my family. I have already hunted for the Elders today," she quietly protested.
"Great! I would like to see who taught such a fine huntress," Zanzen smiled and held out his hand to her.
Reluctantly, she handed over her kill to him. To her surprise, he did not run off with her game like many of the other potential members of the council.
"Lead on, miss," Zanzen said cheerfully. "What is your name?"
"Nari..." Puzzled, she began to walk home as Zanzen kept close by.
Zanzen escorted her all the way to the den her family had carved out for themselves. He dropped the buck where she directed and bid her farewell. Nari could scarcely believe what had come to pass and wasn't quite sure how to explain it to her parents.
Afterward, Zanzen often timed his leisurely strolls with her hunts and he never once missed a time when she took a walk of her own. He was captivated by the little huntress and made no secret of his feelings for her. And neither did she hide her growing fondness of him. Within a few short months, the two were enamored with each other and after a year were nearly inseparable. The difference in their classes didn't matter to them.
But it did to others. Zanzen's female suitors were not pleased he had picked out a lowborn over them. Zanzen and Nari's parents were especially incensed. Zanzen's father believed Nari to be beneath his son and not worth his time. Nari's father believed Zanzen was using her for food and pleasure.
"She is a peasant, a mongrel!" Bibot roared at his son.
"She is my mate!" Zanzen snarled back at his father.
"Pah! Instead of all the fine ladies of the court, my son cavorts with a common whore," Bibot spat.
"Nari conducts herself with more grace than many of those so-called ladies," Zanzen growled menacingly and stormed out of his father's den. He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. His simple life had become much more complicated.
"Another fight with your father?" came a voice from behind him.
"Yes, Sunetra. What do you want?"
"Is all this worth it? For some lowborn?" Sunetra asked, barely hiding her distaste for his newest fling.
Zanzen fixed a glare on her she had not seen before and she took a subconscious step back.
"What of us? Did our walks mean nothing? Our families have long been friends and I know your father would be much happier with our engagement than this passing fancy of yours," Sunetra pressed.
Zanzen's wings tensed and arched dangerously behind him. Sunetra gasped and walked away. The last thing he wanted to deal with right now was an offended ex-suitor. He was one of many with a promising future and he had been in no short supply of companionship. But they had barely interested him then and they certainly did not interest him now. Their laughs were hollow, their eyes mirthless and conniving, their tongues sharp and unforgiving of the slightest trespass.
Letting his wings relax and fold behind him, Zanzen walked through the village. Night had fallen since he began his latest row with his father. No cubs were playing in the clearing and most had retired to their nests for their night. Only the prowling young adults like himself were still out.
As he passed by a group of young males, one broke away and ran up behind him.
"Can you not slow down for a friend?" he laughed.
"'ello, Ketan," was the surly greeting.
"Still haven't won him over, eh?" Ketan asked.
Zanzen growled and didn't answer.
"Well, I think it's a good idea. With you out of the running, that leaves more for me to chase," Ketan laughed.
Zanzen sat on a fallen log. He leaned forward and propped his arms on his legs as he stared at the ground.
"You're certainly risking a lot for her. What's so special about her, anyway?" Ketan swung a leg over the log and plopped down beside his brooding friend.
"I don't know. It's not exactly like she's that poor of a choice. Her grandmother is the renowned Shanku and she certainly seems to have inherited her prowess on the hunt."
"A high-ranking peasant is still a peasant," Ketan reminded him.
"Why should it matter? She's honest, she isn't lazy, she isn't into magic or anything like that," Zanzen held his head in his hands. "She's more a lady to me than Sunetra, Devani, Chunni, or any of the others.
"I don't know. It's one of those weird things people pick to squabble about, like when two ladies go to a party and find they have matching ribbons," Ketan shrugged.
"Maybe I should just walk out before he disowns me. Nari and I can both be hunters," Zanzen sighed.
"Are you mad? Why would you want to live a life like that?" Ketan asked bewildered, and then grinned. "Getting kicked around by people like me and whatnot?"
Zanzen laughed. "Don't forget, I easily best you at wrestling. You wouldn't be getting many kicks in."
"All of your issues aside, what about her? How is her family taking it?"
"Eh, about the same," Zanzen shrugged. "They think I'm a prick. They question her sanity and think I'm just toying with her."
"Ah, nice and simple," Ketan nodded. "No potentially bloody fights."
A loud commotion erupted nearby. Zanzen and Ketan sprang to their feet and went to investigate. Nari was in the middle of Lalana, Eila, Chunni, and Devani. Her tunic was ripped at the waist and her cheek was bruised, but that was nothing compared to the gashes across Devani and Eila's arms.
"Well, so much for that," Ketan muttered.
"This dog attacked us!" Devani screamed.
Nari kept her eyes averted as she had been taught well by the highborn, but kept her ears open and claws at the ready.
"Attacked you, " Zanzen asked, "or defended herself?" He stood beside Nari, letting it be known by his stance another blow would not be tolerated. With a touch to her shoulder, Nari relaxed enough to lower her claws to her side.
"She has certainly poisoned your mind, Zanzen," Chunni scoffed. "Or perhaps bewitched you?"
"Come, come, now ladies. You know magic is forbidden and even if she had cast a spell on Zanzen, it would not go past the notice of his best chum," Ketan laughed. "Now, let's get those ugly little cuts seen about shall we? We don't want something so gorgeous to scar, do we?"
Ketan continued to coax and charm the ladies into going with him. He winked at Zanzen as he left and continued to lavish pity and concern on the injured Devani and Eila. If Zanzen could not take advantage of the situation, Ketan surely would.
"What happened?" Zanzen turned to Nari as soon as they were out of earshot.
"I went to wash in the river and they were waiting for me," Nari said quietly. A tear rolled slowly down her bruised cheek. Zanzen pulled her to him and wrapped his wings around her.
"Hey now, don't worry about it. Those frilly feather-brains are no match for your skill," Zanzen said softly.
Nari laid her head against his chest. "But they are going to lengths now of accusing me of using magic on you! If the clan begins to believe that, I could be exiled, or worse..."
Zanzen placed a knuckle under her chin and lifted her face to his to meet his warm smile. "I am under your spell, but not the vile one they believe it is. I haven't been disowned yet and I still have a good bit of influence. Besides, it would take three hunters to replace the great-granddaughter of Shanku and I don't think they can spare that."
"So what do we do?" Nari asked.
"Lay the groundwork for further disaster," Zanzen shrugged. "Have our parents over for a dinner and hope we can shout above their bickering to declare we've made up our minds and nothing will change that."
"That's your plan?" Nari raised an eyebrow as an ear laid back.
"Pretty much, yeah," Zanzen laughed.
"Perhaps you should become a hunter if your diplomatic skills are no better than that!" Nari laughed with him.
"Indeed! Let's start with your parents. I haven't argued with them yet like I have mine." Zanzen offered her his arm. Nari linked her arm through his and he escorted her home.
Haro and Misen weren't too thrilled to hear their daughter had been attacked by a group of jealous highborn. Misen mixed a poultice and fussed over her daughter's bruise as Haro growled and paced around his small den. Haro darted glances almost continuously to Zanzen but did not say anything. Even Nari's younger brothers Turai and Tahir were glaring at him. But the old dam, Shanku, just watched him with a curious look in her eye.
"Haro, please, just say what it is you're wanting to say," Zanzen said. This had surely been one of many incidences that had led to the slow division of the clan.
"What were those floozies thinking? Attacking my daughter at the river over you? She's not some witch spiriting ye away, it's yer own folly that's gotten us into this mess!" Haro growled and snarled as he animatedly paced his den.
Well, at least our parents both agree this is all my fault, Zanzen mused. In a different time, this might even be amusing.
Haro continued to vent his frustrations seemingly of every member of the ruling class, despite Misen's hisses to hush before he said something that could bring them more misery. Zanzen listened quietly as Haro fumed and snarled into the night. After Haro seemed to have finally had his say, Zanzen was quiet for a few moments.
"It seems this is just a symptom of a larger malady," Zanzen offered at length.
"In what way?" Haro challenged and flared his wings behind him.
"Perhaps the highborn have forgotten their place among the clan," Zanzen continued. "The highborn and lowborn have their own places serving one another, although it seems that now falls more on the lower families."
Haro stopped and just stared at the strange youth in his den. "Are ye sure ye're one of them?" Haro looked him over. "Ye certainly look like one of them."
"Maybe Nari's wearing off on me," Zanzen grinned. "Or maybe I never really understood the separation of classes in the first place."
Haro strode over to Zanzen and sat down across from him. He looked at Zanzen long and hard. "There might be hope for ye yet," he said at length.
"I don't think so. He's just another stinkin' Elder that could care less about us so long as he gets what he wants!" Turai growled as he began to leave. "Leave my sister alone!" Turai snapped before leaving the den.
"How far are ye willin' to go for me daughter?" Haro asked, ignoring Turai's outburst. It was nothing different from what he himself had been saying earlier.
"I could become one of the warriors, " Turai shrugged. "Or a hunter or gatherer, if necessary."
"Ye'd give up yer seat on the council?" Haro pressed.
"Da!" Nari intervened. Haro waved a clawed hand at her and kept his scrutinizing gaze on Zanzen.
"It would be no great loss to me. I've kept company with the warriors enough to be of some use in a fight and I'm sure it wouldn't be much for Nari to polish my hunting skills. We would be able to survive with little difficulty."
"Perhaps we should see to keeping ye on the council," Haro sat back and ran a finger through his long, curly beard. "It's not often you have an Elder with a shred of humility or willing to get his claws dirty."
"So you wouldn't mind if I continued to court your daughter?" Zanzen asked hopefully.
Haro chewed his tongue and scrunched his nose. He rolled his eyes and stroked his beard. "Eh, I suppose."
Zanzen smiled broadly and the women breathed a collective heavy sigh of relief. But Shanku smiled a wry smile and nodded her wrinkled old head.
"But what of Turai?" Zanzen asked. "He was rather upset and a lad of his age is prone to doing something more rash than one of my age."
"He'll come around in time," Haro waved. "Don't worry about him. He's just a cub still."
Misen offered him something to eat, with a passing suggestion he might need to fix his bowl himself if there was a good chance he was about to become a commoner. Tahir seemed a bit warmer to Zanzen, but still rather distant. Nari was finally free to be her affectionate self toward him when around her parents. Elderly Shanku told Zanzen of how she so controversially not too long ago had taken a Gatherer as her mate.
One down, one to go, Zanzen thought. I can imagine how the others will twist this night around to reflect poorly on her family.
Word travelled quickly of the encounter between Nari and the jealous highborn females. What was originally a few scratches in self-defense quickly became an unprovoked assault that nearly resulted in the entire loss of Devani and Eila's arms.
"Maybe I should have ripped their arms off entirely. Lying little..." Nari muttered a string of curses under her breath.
"I never really liked them anyway," Zanzen groaned. He propped his chin on his hands and his elbows on his knees.
"What does Ketan see in them?"
"He's young and stupid?" Zanzen shrugged.
"That's what they're saying about you towards me," Nari reminded. She turned and began to walk away. "I've had it with all of this. I'm going to go to your father to get this official and settled."
"I should come with you. Lalana and Chunni are bound to be out for trouble." Zanzen stood and followed her.
To his relief, none were interested in picking a fight with the little huntress. Instead of her usual submission, any who directed a sneer towards her was met with an aggressive glare. Even Sunetra kept quiet when Nari passed. They soon arrived at Bibot's den. He was outside receiving a bundle of leather from one of the hunting families.
Bibot bid the hunters farewell and turned to face his son and the one he had picked as his mate. Bibot had never really met Nari before. She was small with a delicately featured face, dark wings, long black hair, and she carried herself with confidence. Nari could almost pass for a highborn if it wasn't for that defiant look in her eye.
"Sir Bibot, a word?" The fiery huntress came to a stop before him.
"I'm listening," Bibot said coldly.
"As you probably know, I am Nari, great-granddaughter of the huntress Shanku and daughter of Haro and Misen. I have served the Elders faithfully in my hunts, I have shown difference to the young of the council, and I have even given my personal kills to those who've demanded it. Until last night, I had never raised a claw to a highborn."
"But you did seriously hurt those two," Bibot frowned.
"Would you rather I had been drowned in the river?" Nari narrowed her eyes. "Zanzen and I are adults, we are capable of making our own decisions. What crime have we committed by becoming committed to each other?"
"Mixing the classes is simply Not Done," Bibot answered.
"'Not Done'?" Nari's wings arched behind her. "Once, Kurach did not wear clothes when running through brush and bramble. It was just Not Done. Once, all Kurach hunted their own meals if they were healthy. Letting a privileged few sit on their tails was just Not Done. Imagine if we all went back to receiving thorns to our nethers and letting each fend for themselves." Nari paused, and continued. "And once, Kurach solved their problems through talk or contest. Ambushing each other when they went to bathe was just Not Done. That is one of the older ways I wouldn't mind returning to."
"Are you threatening to cease your hunts?" Bibot queried.
"I'm saying that nothing in life is absolute and things can change," Nari replied. "It's not like the whole clan will fall to chaos. Most of the lowborn enjoy being gatherers, hunters, and menders because the politics and diplomacy between the clans is very boring and the notion of being cooped up all day like the scribes would drive them mad. Most of the highborn are not that fond of struggling with bramble and briers or the menial task of sewing and prefer to let those of us who enjoy it do those things instead. The classes were born out of consideration for each other, not out of pride or hatred."
Bibot felt an uneasy twinge in his gut. A favorite topic of the priests was discerning the proper amount of pride one was to have to maintain a healthy confidence without straying into outright arrogance. Many of the council in times past had lost their seat when their pride became arrogance.
"Perhaps... you have a point. She could teach you more than hunting, Zanzen," Bibot laughed. "Perhaps your judgment isn't so impaired after all."
Nari's wings relaxed and folded behind her. She seemed to have won this battle. But there was still the matter of the jealous females. "What of those like Devani? Will this end, or will I be forced to hurt more of the clan?"
"Leave them to me," Bibot scoffed. "I may use your point of pride to convince them not to act so dishonorably."
Nari smiled a devious smile. "You could always mention how harming a soon-to-be mother is especially dishonorable."
Zanzen and Bibot both stared at her in shock.
"You were going to tell me when?" Zanzen demanded.
"When we had a quiet moment, and this is the quietest it's been since I found out myself," Nari laughed.
Bibot sat on the bench outside his den and Zanzen and Nari shared a nearby log to discuss when to hold the ceremonial supper between their two families to honor Zanzen and Nari's decision to become a pair. He also congratulated them heartily on their coming young and looked forward to becoming a grandparent.
Tension did not fully cease but it was greatly lessened toward the couple. Zanzen renounced his future rights to a seat on the council in favor of becoming a warrior and Nari continued to hunt for the clan. Zanzen and Nari worked to reduce the strain on the working class and the contempt felt between the classes.
Both decided to move into their own nest. Together, they carved out their own place not too far from Nari's parents. There they settled in happily. A month later, Nari laid her egg and took to fussing over it constantly. Zanzen could not be happier.
All seemed to be going well, except for one final point. Nari's younger brother, Turai. He still felt much resentment toward Zanzen and nothing could change his mind about it. Turai felt it as his duty to protect his sister and was determined to do just that, and did just that one day.
Zanzen looked uneasily at the youth before him. "Are you sure?" he asked tentatively.
Turai just glared at him, his light frame quivering in excitement. "Answer my challenge!"
A crowd was beginning to draw around them. Not that Turai had been very subtle about challenging Zanzen over Nari's status, as he had approached Zanzen near the village center.
"You do realize the consequences the council will exact for you if you lose, correct?" Zanzen asked quietly.
Turai growled lowly, and sprang. Zanzen stepped to the side and prepared himself for the rest of the confrontation. Turai was nine years younger, and at his life stage it made for a vast difference between the two. Zanzen was an adult, Turai was a youth. It was no contest. Zanzen attempted to end the fight as gently as possible, but Turai's tenacity left him little choice but to begin dealing with him more harshly.
Bruised, bloody, and tired, Turai sat trembling on the ground and breathing heavily.
"Do you secede?" Zanzen demanded firmly, hardly tired himself.
Turai growled and lunged one final time. Zanzen, well past his patience, cupped his hand and struck out hard at the pup. Turai yipped as Zanzen's claws slashed open his chest.
"Enough!" Zanzen barked. "You have lost."
Turai knelt where he fell, saying nothing as he gripped his bleeding chest. Nari reached out to him, and Turai allowed her to guide him home.
A quick glare from Zanzen to the crowd caused them to begin to disperse back into the forest and go to their individual nests. He also slipped away and stayed gone for many hours, walking slowly between the trees and thinking over the night's events.
He returned in the morning to his and Nari's nest to find her beckoning him in quickly. Puzzled, he came in to find both his and Nari's family gathered around their egg. With great excitement, he realized it was hatching! Zanzen huddled next to his family as their cub broke her way through the shell. Nari scooped up her new cub and lovingly dried her off.
The celebrations were cut short as a guard announced the arrival of one of the highest Elders. A solemn hush fell over the party as Turai was called outside. The Elder stood before Turai, glaring down at him coldly.
"A challenge is a serious thing, pup. Only issued to those in which you refuse to absolve your problems with by any other method. By losing your challenge without also losing your life, you are hereby placed into exile for the minimum of ten years. Leave quickly and do not return until your penance is paid and your problems resolved."
Turai said nothing as he obediently trudged into the forest.
Haro immediately blamed Bibot and the two got into a very loud argument. Before their wives could intervene, Granny Shanku silenced them all with a fierce growl none had heard her give before.
To Nari's alarm, she watched her great-grandmother fall to the ground. Haro and Misen quickly got her inside while Zanzen urged his parents to go to their own home while they dealt with the ill dam.
With her family gathered around her, Granny Shanku gave her last blessing to her family.
"Aye, my sons and daughters, don't worry of Turai. He shall be fine," she smiled weakly and then stilled.
The next few days were very bittersweet for the family as the celebrated the arrival of the cub and mourned the passing of the dam. In honor of her memory, Zanzen and Nari decided to name the cub after her great-great-granddam.
Relations between Zanzen and Nari's family were tense, and any hope of their families getting along with one another were now gone. To his relief, Nari did not abandon him nor blame him for his father's actions, nor Turai's actions and following banishment. They continued with their plans to wed, and were united shortly before the autumn festival. Late at night, he could sometimes find Nari looking out into the forest, as if in search of her lost brother. At times she would disappear altogether for a few hours, to where he did not know.
One night, Nari returned looking even more upset than she usually did after taking her long walk. She wouldn't reveal why. At length, Zanzen said nothing and stopped pressing her about the issue. He gave her a soft smile and took her in his arms. Nari smiled weakly and nodded. She gave him a kiss on the cheek, then playfully pushed away and took off into the trees. Zanzen laughed and gave chase. This was to be the first of many happy nights, and from then on Nari did not seem to be upset from losing her brother any more.
Within a few months, nothing was on their minds but a new striped egg being kept warm in their nest.